Cover image for BP Gregory's horror novel The Town shows a figure made of burnt sticks hovering against burning clouds
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Outback horror novel
The sole consolation to be so burning febrile inside your skull as they stretchered you across the clearing, stumbling and grunting beneath the burden, sky whirling, that you had no idea where they were sticking you ...
Kate knows what she saw on the satellite footage: the burnt out remains of a town. But she was drunk, the evidence vanishes and nobody believes her. Determined to prove it at any cost she takes co-worker Lin and sets out into remote bushland and farms, exposing them both to a slew of horrible urban legends, sinister locals, and the mystery of too many people who vanished over the years with nowhere to go.
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From that point on young Carol’s life became increasingly bounded by things that were not normal. Previously she’d been permitted to undertake the long walk to the postbox and back alone. It was one of her big-girl chores. She liked to handle the smooth white envelopes, they seemed important, even when she was a tad late and they came out marred by the coiled munching of hungry slugs and snails.
And it wasn’t really dangerous. If the plume of dust wasn’t enough of a giveaway you could hear cars kilometres off. But now her father had to accompany her, tossing the task right back to little kid territory. Which also meant post got put off to whenever he was available, instead of when the urge struck Carol to rush outside and tramp the weedy verge into fresh air and silence, where moth riddled leaf chandeliers sieved the light and tapped her head like old friends reminding her you love this.
Instead, here went her father. Slouching in front with hands in pockets and eyes as empty as a phone call, not even trying to make it fun. Max took rear guard, which left Carol piggy in the middle.
The convoy was why she didn’t immediately understand when her father held his hand out behind and she crashed into it. ‘Stay there honey. Just … stay there.’ His voice sounded strained but that was nothing new.
‘Stay Max,’ she hissed rebelliously. The obedient kelpie crouched, his pale eyes bright. It was his new habit to crowd close enough to trip over but Carol did not mind – not when she woke to the congested rasp from her closet of somebody breathing through their mouth in the dark. Or when she peered across a paddock trying to decide if that was a figure staring at her from the other side. Anyone who wanted Carol would have to come through Max first.
Her father was kicking around, picking up a stick because mud was caked around the outside of their postbox. Not a little bit either.
A cluster of boxes huddled like gossips alongside the meeting with the main road; the postman could hardly be asked to slog down all those meandering driveways, roads in their own right. His next shift would be up before he’d even returned from deep in the fields.
It was a bit of local colour that some neighbours got elaborate about their postboxes, repurposing old milk canisters or other bits of interesting equipment; repainting every spring in proud pig pink or cow spots. Carol averted her eyes from the latter. She did not like cows anymore.
By contrast their postbox was just a basic tin box on a post. No need for a lock, her mother said with forced cheer, any thief who wanted their bills was welcome to them. But theirs was the only one smeared.
Using the stick with his other sleeve pressed to his nose her father flipped it open and oh no. That was not mud caked on the outside and packed solid within.
The smell Carol knew too well from clearing Max’s logs off the lawn, only this was worse. A rotting stench from the hindquarters of something mostly dead that did not know it yet, that still strained at the processes of life, pretending all was normal.
And … was that a slime of ..? Dark, foamy and organic, oozing out. Crushed tomatoes in a bowl, or that texta she split staining the rug and her hands so her mother screamed thinking her scalded and wept with relief when she trod in the rest of the mess, kissing her daughter all over and Carol sick with not knowing what she’d done now.
Her father dropped his stick and gagged once, a harsh gak not unlike those Max made from his broken head. And then he was herding Carol back. Doing his best to block with his body what she had already seen. ‘Come on, back to the house.’
‘But Dad it’s …’
‘Pronto young lady!’ It was not so much his hysteria that got her going as the expression which had become familiar these days: fixed, blank. Her father’s mind was away to something more critical, and would not be lured back by shouts or demands.
She backed up but a great surge of anger at her powerlessness swept over Carol, clenching her small fists. She would wait. Waiting was an old friend. Perhaps tonight she could overhear them discussing it in their hushed indoors voices and learn something that way.